Book Clubs

I’ve noticed a rising trend: online book clubs. My first real sight of it was Infinite Summer, a website dedicated to spending the breadth of the US summer reading the 1000-odd pages of Infinite Jest, by the late great David Foster Wallace. They followed that up with reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and that’s just wound up too. Anyone across the world who wants to join in can, reading a set amount of pages each day, supplemented by commentary, blogging, forum discussion and a huge, collaborative, social-media-fuelled exploration of the texts as everyone else reads along. The very idea of it pushes my booknerdy buttons.

Now there’s The Cork-Lined Room, a similar project but for reading Marcel Proust’s utterly enormous (3000 pages or so?) In Search of Lost Time. I think I’ll leave that one for a while, until I’ve finished War and Peace, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake and Moby Dick first. But heck, even one of the dudes from that hip young folk band Mumford and Sons has started a book club on the band’s website, with the first month dedicated to Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Despite some people’s fears that the internet distracts people from reading books, the two mediums can coexist and, clearly, complement each other.

I was keen to undertake Infinite Summer (well, it would have been a winter for me), but it was far too tricky in the middle of Uni. I’m thinking I might attempt it this summer, or soon at least. Or maybe I’ll wait around for Infinite Summer’s next project, the also enormous 2666, by Roberto Bolaño.

But while I know I’ll be glad to finally have more freedom to plough into my own books soon, I’d also be keen to be part of a real life, face-to-face, genuine book club. I’m not sure how hard it would be to agree on a book or find enough people, but I’m keen. Anyone in Melbourne keen?

‘Freemium’ and Free Verse

Thought I’d share two things I’ve read recently. Both demonstrate how there’s great possibilities for authors, poets and all varieties of writers and creatives to get their work out there, all using the free-flowing intertubes, while still making money.

 

First, via a post in Spike – the Meanjin blog, I’ve learnt that uber-nerd and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow is conducting an experiment for his new book, With a Little Help. He’ll be releasing the book in myriad ways: from free Creative Commons-licensed digital copies, to a premium special-edition book valued at $10,000, and all sorts of stuff in between. Hence, the term ‘freemium’. This is somewhat similar to what Nine Inch Nails did with their music recently, but in a broader and more openly experimental way. This is all to explore what you can do when you give stuff away for free, but also self-publish and sell stuff via print-on-demand, or offer other freelance services. A big ol’ mixture. Check out his Publishers Weekly Column for even more detail. I’ll be reading his regular updates on the process with interest.

 

Cory Doctorow: experimenting with 'Freemium' for his new book

  

Second, PoetrySpeaks is a new website and a new business model, kind of like iTunes for poetry, or Facebook for poets. What’s especially cool about it is that it offers a combination of free and paid material from ‘classic’ or established poets, as well as both curated and user-driven spaces for less well-known poets to get their stuff out there, and even get paid for it. While the site still needs a lot of building up and a broader international diversity, it’s promising to see that the works of both established and emerging artists can stand side by side, giving everyone opportunities to spread their words and ideas and maybe make a little moolah.

 

So whether you write books or poetry, or whatever you create, it’s worth exploring the possibilities of the internet. Sometimes giving stuff away for free online can end up being very rewarding.

 

A Strange Way of Generating Buzz

Had to share this weird video from the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s one of the biggest meet-ups of the year for publishers, agents and the like, but this is the first video I think I’ve ever seen from it. The Fair itself is not too far from what you’d expect, but I’ve never seen advertising like this before.

Yup, tiny little advertising banners attached to flies. The banners apparently were harmlessly stuck on with natural wax and dropped off after a while. The main effect is a whole lot of double takes and a lot of attention for Eichborn. But I wonder how many people remember the stunt rather than the name though?

Still, it’s a good reminder: there are always unique ways to get your stuff out there that simply can’t be done on the internet. We just get the YouTube’d version of it.

Marieke Hardy’s m-Book

We’ve had Facebook and eBooks, now here’s an m-book.

In this case, m-book stands for mobile book, but it could also stand for Marieke’s book. You might know Marieke Hardy as part of the breakfast show trio on Triple J, as writer of columns in The Age’s Green Guide, as Ms Fits on her blog Reasons You Will Hate Me (now on indefinite hiatus), or as the regular on First Tuesday Book Club who’s not Jason Steger or Jennifer Byrne. Among other things, she also writes for television and even wrote a few episodes of Neighbours, but I won’t hold that against her. I think she’s great, and she’s something a book nerd crush for me, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend. A number of other people I know have disagreed vehemently with my glowing opinion of her, so she definitely divides people.

In any case, I’m a fan, so I was definitely curious when I read about her new project. She’s writing a story called Vigilante Virgin for The Age, about a socially inept woman who tries to jumpstart her life by joining up with a bunch of community activists. So, this story is something you sign up for on your phone, hence the m-book. If all goes to plan, you send a text to them and then you get sent a message every morning at 7 AM. Simple, right? But the message you get isn’t the story segment. It’s a link to a website containing the story segment that you can read on your phone if your phone is internet-enabled.

But there’s more. I was curious enough to buy into it, if only for a day and for the sake of an experiment. But apparently if you’re on 3Mobile like me, you can’t view it. I found this out when every time I tried to subscribe, I got an error message. So I gave up.

And yet, when the story launched on the morning of October 12, I somehow received two messages containing the link. For whatever reason, these also would not view on my phone! However, as I soon found out (through the utilisation of l33t $killz) it is entirely possible to just type the link into your computer’s internet browser, unsubscribe on your phone and continue reading on your computer for free. The link remains the same every day, and you can look into the archives for every previous segment.

If it wasn’t already clear enough, there’s no reason for anyone to keep subscribing, other than a sense of loyalty to Marieke or The Age. Or maybe a devotion to Borders, with their ad running at the base of the story every day. One could subscribe on the second last day and, with that link, read the entire archive for a fraction of the amount paid by a loyal subscriber. So basically, The Age is doing it wrong.

Maybe it would be better if the story instalments were simply received as text messages daily. This way, anyone with even the most basic phone could receive the story segments and easily store them to read later. Then it would truly feel like an m-book. Sure, maybe then people would just forward the story to their friends, starving The Age of subscription revenue, or maybe it would work as free publicity, encouraging some friends to take up a subscription of their own. Or maybe by designing a story service with greater interactivity, more people would get interested and involved. Each person could be given an individual log-in as an incentive to participate in the conversation, and maybe have the chance to vote via SMS to influence the progression of the story. An en-masse mobile-phone choose-your-own-adventure story. Now that would be a cool way to really embrace the medium.

As it is, the subscription should be much cheaper. Right now, a full-paying subscriber pays 55c a day for 20 days, plus the sign-up SMS of 25c. So at roughly 350 words a day, you’re paying a total of $11.25 for a 7000-word short story, not a book.

Still, keeping up with a serialised short story is always fun. I’d be almost glad to pay for more things like this in the future, if the price was much more reasonable and if things worked a bit better.

As for the story itself, it’s good so far. Definitely has a touch of Marieke’s distinct sardonic wit and some evocative descriptions. So far, it’s been more about character, mood and humour, rather than a barrelling plot progression. Still, it’s going to interesting places and I’m definitely keen to see where Judy, the sausage-roll-shaped protagonist, is plonked by the story’s end. Maybe I’ll provide a summary of my thoughts once the story has reached its conclusion. George Dunford at Hackpacker is planning to the same, and he’s already shared his thoughts so far, much of which I agree with. Adam Ford blogged a little about it too, but isn’t keen enough to subscribe. He also points out a number of others who have been doing serialised online works before this. Gullybogan, meanwhile, is rather cynical about the whole thing.

Anyway, if you’re interested, The Age put up an edited version of the first week’s instalments. It’s a good representative sample. But I wonder if people who already paid for the first week felt betrayed and then unsubscribed? And maybe the story will come out later in another form. Who knows? It’s up to chapter 15 and only has another 5 weekdays left, I believe. I’ll keep reading for free on my computer (so…then it’s a c-book?) until the end and look with interest for whatever The Age and Marieke are doing next. I wonder if they’ll decide to take this sort of thing any further.

For all its faults, I hold Marieke in no disrepute. This is mostly The Age’s experiment. The story itself is solid, she’s the writer, and her writing and coquettish ways will remain delightfully compelling to me, no matter what my girlfriend or anyone else says, dagnabbit!

W+E4DM Web Feature Portfolio Part 2 – Review: Rooftops by Mandy Ord

This is part 2 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’ The Enthusiast. My second article is a review for their ‘Books’ category.

7/10 Stars (again, no Enthusiast star images or sweded images)

Rooftops is ostensibly about a day when Mandy Ord watched Ghostbusters at the cinema with some friends, then drove home and had chatted with her housemate. Simple. But it manages to be, in a gently odd way, an absorbing and thoughtful story.

This is Mandy Ord’s first book-length comic, which I suppose you’d call a graphic novel, and it was published by Finlay Lloyd. They have a frustratingly creaky-looking website, but their books are often thoughtful and beautifully made essay collections, like When Books Die and Animals. Ord did feature in the latter though, so clearly she’s part of their efforts in new directions.

Despite being more of a graphic novel, it retains Ord’s preoccupation with the little things that stand out amongst the ordinary and mundane. In this way, the story’s subject matter and conversations cover coincidences, the search for meaning, Bill Murray’s career and the literature of mystics and philosophers. Her overactive imagination regularly merges with the everyday and she further illuminates the narrative with thoughts and visions conjured by a mind that loves scaring itself. A demonic imp-like man climbs over a toilet door at her. Images of Ghostbusters ghouls and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man fill her head, her life and her panels.

From every black page spread, four equal panels of white and black pop out. The panels are filled with Ord’s wobbily handwritten speech bubbles, realistic cityscapes and urban interiors of Melbourne, and distorted but curiously realistic cartoon figures, most notably the one-eyed protagonist herself. These slightly twisted figures reminded me at times of Albert Tucker’s work. Her drawings from movie scenes are also evocative and spot-on, yet still true to her overall technique.

Despite the twisted style and imaginative divergences, it’s essentially a work of realism, possibly memoir. These are musings, moments and memories from an individual perspective. There’s no clear moral lesson, no ‘heroes journey’. This is real life and there’s rarely a big answer or resolution at the end of each day. Her story goes on, continued in her other comics, in bits and pieces. Rooftops itself is not an amazing work, but still a pleasant, leisurely and enjoyable read.

In any case, I’m still a fan and I’ll be keeping an eye out, watching her progress as an artist and storyteller. In fact, after reading Rooftops I noticed her work popping up all over the place: in recent issues of The Lifted Brow; a serialised historical comic/essay with Kate Fielding in Meanjin; in Sleepers’s wonderful Conceived on a Tram; in the Paper Life Boat exhibition during the Fringe Festival; and in myriad comic anthologies, zines and small press endeavours. Clearly prolific, she also sporadically updates her blog with sketches and character portraits – they’ve taken on rather hirsute qualities lately. Amongst all this, I hope she’s still finding time to put effort into another long-form work. Until then, I’d recommend checking out her stuff. Rooftops serves as a great introduction.

My Melbourne Writers Festival Experience

After my last post I did get a chance to attend a couple of events at the Melbourne Writers Festival, so here (to make up for a bit of a blogging hiatus), are some recollections and thoughts. Better late than never!

I ended up only attending free events, but I was not disappointed! Though the festival began on Friday the 21st of August, my first event was on the night of Thursday the 27th: The Festival Club. This event, which was on most nights, offered a mixed bag of what the festival had to offer. The main portion of this event when I was there was the SPUNC Reading and Writing Spectacular. SPUNC stands for Small Press Underground Networking Community, for those not in the know, so it was a good showcase of small indie publishers doing great things! Three things stood out that night:

  • Affirm Press’s Rebecca Stafford spoke about their upcoming Long Story Shorts: short story collections that they’re currently planning and accepting submissions for. If you’ve got a collection of short stories in your drawer, computer or mind, then you should send something their way. This is a publisher doing a great mix of things, and I’m interested to see what they come up with.
  • Sleepers Publishing was represented by author Kalinda Ashton, whose new book The Danger Game had previously failed to entice me, but after hearing her give a reading, I think I might have to check it out. Sleepers is becoming more awesome by the day: they put out a weekly video newsletter, the annual Sleepers Almanac and, recently, The Age Book of the Year, Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam, which I can’t wait to read.
  • Finally, I correctly answered a question (“What will Affirm Press’s short story collections be called?” See above!) and MC Angela Meyer rewarded my attentiveness with a copy of My Extraordinary Life and Death, a delightfully hilarious little picture book! Huzzah!

So my night was interesting, informative and I got a freebie!

On Saturday the 29th, I went along with friend and girlfriend to watch that day’s Artist in Residence: the author and illustrator Shaun Tan. If you haven’t seen or read his work, check out The Arrival. It’s a fantastic story about the immigrant experience told without words. And for no price beyond the tram ticket to get there, we could sit in our deckchairs and watch Shaun choose a little doodle from his sketchbook and then turn it into a finely crafted pen-inked drawing of a griffin mother and child, or wax crayon picture of a sinister penguin banker. We could either watch up-close or see his handiwork projected onto a huge video screen. He made it look so simple! He was a friendly guy; he would chat to people and answer questions as he was drawing. He even signed dozens of people’s books purchased from the nearby festival Readings store, including my friends copy of Tales From Outer Suburbia … I really must borrow it someday.

Shaun Tan giving a speech

Shaun Tan giving a speech

(Photo by anna_t, under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa license)

In our brief chat, I was intrigued to hear that he also did some of the preliminary concept drawings for the animated films Wall-E and Horton Hears a Who and is working on an animated short at the moment. This whole experience just cemented that he’s one of my favourite artists. It was so cool to get a chance to watch and engage as a talented artist created his work. Inspiring stuff! I just wish I could have seen some of the other artists and authors in residence.

Later that evening, I got along to another Festival Club. The Age’s Literary Editor, Jason Steger, was there for a chat. Among the interesting tidbits was his revelation that he read War & Peace in just one day, spread across a couch at home. And he gives it two thumbs up!  Other than that, there was more from SPUNC:

  • A representative from Spinifex Press spoke about their new work Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls. It sounds like a comprehensive and important work on a troubling topic. The brief interview gave me the impression that this is a bigger problem than I’d ever suspected.
  • Emmett Stinson, who some of you may have had classes with, spoke about Wet Ink, where he’s the Fiction Editor. They were giving away free copies and I managed to bag one. I’ve had a look over a few issues now and it’s a quality publication. I’d like to subscribe once I get a real job as , say, a Fiction Editor?
  • There were words with the editor of Extempore, a biannual jazz journal, which actually sounds really amazing, even though I know next to nothing about jazz.
  • And Griffith Review, yet another journal that looks intimidating in its greatness. I don’t think I’ll ever have time to read all the snazzy-looking publications out there, thanks to events like this!

All in all, another great day and night at the festival!

My final part in the festival experience was a little bit of The Morning Read on Sunday the 30th, the final day of the festival. This event, chaired by Torpedo’s Chris Flynn, ran almost every morning of the festival and presented three authors reading from their works and fielding questions from the audience. I’d never heard of any of the three, but I was pleasantly surprised:

  • Peter Bakowski was first, and he got past my misguided prejudice against the pretentious beret-wearing poet cliche with his gentle, wise and casually talented words and manner. His reading of Portrait of blood floored me. I want to get one of his books already.
  • Petina Gappah, a Zimbabwean author, read some short excerpts. I’ll definitely keep her in mind, with her detailed and colourful tales of daily life in Africa.
  • I didn’t hear Nicholas Rothwell read any of his work, but he did field some questions. He was so softly-spoken, introspective and thoughtful and used such descriptive language, I assumed he was a poet too. But upon internet research: nope! Journalist for The Australian!

Goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover!

Aaaaaand with that, I think that’s enough literary-related blathering for several weeks, at least on this blog. I promise my next post will be short, pithy, well-chunked and related purely to the interwebs.

In summation: There were so many events I wish I could have made it to, but I’m glad I saw what I did. I feel much more familiar with the festival and know exactly what sort of things I want to get in on early, next year. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to see everything I want in 2010!

Beyond that, for anyone else who’s interested, the MWF Website has a roundup of all the blogging that’s been done about this year’s festival, as well as a selection of audio/visual recordings from the programme.

So that should have you covered if you missed out! Anyone else manage to see anything? Don’t let me be a lonely litnerd!

Melbourne Writers Fest

This being my first year living in Melbourne, studying and internshipping and engaging with all things writing, editing and publishing, you’d think I’d be all over the Melbourne Writers Festival.  But nope, not exactly. I’ve been busy and thus far my participation has been solely digital. I’ve been attending vicariously, via those fortunate enough to attend all sorts of festival events from free to fancy. My online pseudo-participation has come mostly from the varied musings on the MWF Blog and the festival diary of Miss LiteraryMinded. It’s not the same as the real thing, but it’s great to get a look at all the things I can’t attend, just for a slice of what’s on offer.

Luckily the festival still has a few days left (until the 31st) and I should be able to make it to some free events closer to the weekend. Maybe I’ll even find some spare change for some of the pricier events, if they aren’t booked out.

Anyone else attending anything/planning to/wanting to/um, not wanting to?

Ooh, and here’s the MWF trailer, which I think is pretty rad for an ad:

The future of books?

Don’t worry if e-readers take over, those chunky old hardbacks will still serve a purpose: as a case for your Kindle.

It’s interesting how this website is starting a little craft enterprise out of this idea. They do it for other models, and even for iPhone. Not sure if they’re the first to have done it for e-readers, but it’s the first I’ve heard of it.

It’s a perversely intriguing idea. You can keep the tactile sense of a real book in your hands, the smell of it, and the ability to show off the book you might be reading on the tram (although it could be just one of the thousands you really have stored inside). But I guess it’s going to make the original book a little hard to read.

Still, all in all, a cute idea. I wonder if they’ll ever design an e-reader that actually looks like a book, with a genuine textured display screen cover showing the title of whatever you’re reading, genuine page-rustling noise when clicking the turn pages button and a smell dispenser for that genuine old book scent! Why, it’ll be the best of both worlds! …Or not?

Plugs

What good is a blog if you can’t use it plug stuff? And it’s even relevant!

I’m currently doing an internship with The Lifted Brow, the one and only biannual attack journal of arts, letters and sciences. They have a great (and big – 200+ pages!) mix of material: short stories, creative non-fiction, poetry, art and more! The last issue came with a double CD of great music from artists like The Lucksmiths to Neil Gaiman (yup), and the current issue includes a cd-length epic journey of science-fiction, rhyming couplets and radness. That’s not to mention the new maths column, which comes with a free piece of string!

I heartily recommend that you check it out, buy a copy, subscribe and tell them what you think!

Second, have a look at Blemish Books. This is my friend from Canberra’s new publishing venture and it looks like he’ll be doing some great stuff. If you’re inclined to write poetry or creative essays and see them published in real books (none of this digital publishing which is surely just a passing fad, like fridges), then send them your best stuff! Hey, there’s a reviews section on the website too, so I guess you can stay digital.

I wonder sometimes if independent publishers like the above will eventually migrate into ebooks, or if they will continue to produce works of quality and beauty in print. Zines have persisted as a viable format, even with the rise of blogs. Likewise, maybe ebooks and books will coexist, with each playing a role that is unique to the medium. I’m excited about the possibilities of ebooks, but surely there are some things that make print worthwhile: the tactile, the collectable and maybe more. And you can’t download a piece of string for an ebook!

Litblogs

After reading a post on the Overland blog, I’ve been thinking about literature and the avenues for conversation surrounding it. Many people read books as part of a diverse media diet that also consists of television, radio, magazines, newspapers and, yep, the internet. But only a certain number of people might call themselves book lovers and an even smaller number are the ones who (like me) frequent litblogs (LiteraryMinded is a good local example). These might be people who are interested in literary journals, book launches, the latest small press publications and the like. But while litblogs do skirt the mainstream, occasionally reviewing Dan Brown novels, Booker prize winners and the like, they may need to do even more for a general readership soon.

In the past, people interested in all things literary (be they writers, those in the publishing industry or just dedicated bibliophiles), might have kept up-to-date via weekly or monthly literary supplements in the newspaper. But the general public would also flip through this section. Maybe something would catch their eye, they’d decide to read a few stories or interviews and engage with the literary culture. But on the internet, you never need to even browse past topics you’re not immediately interested in. Your blog reader or your bookmarks exclude anything outside your personalised niche interests.

So the decline of print newspapers (especially if Australia follows the trend in the USA) may mean the decline of literary pages and thus the decline of the literary community engaging with the general public. Of course, if  you want your literary fix, you can just go online where myriad litbloggers or alternative websites post news, reviews and interviews daily. But who’s going to go out of their way to find this stuff besides bibliophiles? Does the world of literature afficionados becomes a clique that just talks to itself? Or maybe it was always like this?

One of the great things about the internet is that you can easily find anything you’re interested in and stay updated. But does this mean people aren’t challenged enough; that they never even find out about different points of view if they don’t want to? The internet can be a browser window to the world, but it can also keep us locked in our own little bubble, if people don’t make efforts otherwise.

How does the literary community reach the mainstream? I guess it’s the age-old question for any niche or subculture looking for broader appeal.

Will The Age‘s Saturday literary supplement soon be gone? Or the monthly literary supplement in The Australian? Will litblogs continue  to serve the bookish community’s niche interests or will they go beyond to claim the place of established newspaper sections?  Or will the literary supplements flourish in a new form online, funded by the monetisation of online news services?

As with all things, I think it’s good to be informed and on top of whats going on, but this ponderous ramble boils down to: we’ll see!